Small-Town Heroes from the Heartland
It's no accident that so many of our Medal of Honor winners hail from small towns with place names that no one can recognize.
May 25, 2009 - 12:45 am
It is late spring in Streator, Illinois, and like a thousand other places across the heartland of America, the smell of freshly overturned earth in the farmer’s fields signals the beginning of that endless cycle of birth to death to birth for which we all depend on for sustenance. The miracle of life now stirring in the rich, black loam of the prairie will once again astound us as the empty fields that stretch from horizon to horizon will, like magic, fill with the green offshoots of high bio-tech seeds, engineered to grow with an incredible swiftness and biologically configured to resist almost everything that nature can do to destroy them.
I have lived in urban, suburban, ex-urban, and now rural America in my life. But this singular fact of existence dominates the pace of life in the small towns that dot the landscape of the prairie and imbues the people with a deep respect for the land and the Lord’s bounty that is reaped as a result of hard work, sweat, and good luck.
Perhaps it is no accident then that so many of America’s fallen hailed from towns with place names that are familiar only to those who live but a stone’s throw from where these heroes grew up.
Who has ever heard of Clairsville, Ohio, birthplace of Medal of Honor winner Sylvester Antolak? Among the heroic deeds mentioned in his citation were:
With one shoulder deeply gashed and his right arm shattered, he continued to rush directly into the enemy fire concentration with his submachinegun wedged under his uninjured arm until within 15 yards of the enemy strong point, where he opened fire at deadly close range, killing 2 Germans and forcing the remaining 10 to surrender. He reorganized his men and, refusing to seek medical attention so badly needed, chose to lead the way toward another strong point 100 yards distant. Utterly disregarding the hail of bullets concentrated upon him, he had stormed ahead nearly three-fourths of the space between strong points when he was instantly killed by hostile enemy fire. Inspired by his example, his squad went on to overwhelm the enemy troops. By his supreme sacrifice, superb fighting courage, and heroic devotion to the attack, Sgt. Antolak was directly responsible for eliminating 20 Germans, capturing an enemy machinegun, and clearing the path for his company to advance.
Hundreds of other Medal of Honor winners can lay claim to a similar background, growing up in rural villages and hamlets that, in many cases, time has forgotten and the world has passed by. America’s small-town culture has been ridiculed, criticized, and dismissed — especially over the last few decades — by an elite that cannot fathom why anyone would wish to live more than a couple of miles from a world class opera house or art museum. Nor can they understand why someone would choose country quiet over the babble and cacophony of the big city.
So they disparage these simple citizens — the ones who do most of the living, loving, fighting, and dying for America — because at bottom, they are what they accuse small town folk of being: narrow-minded and bigoted.
If these elites were to open their eyes, they may discover that people who live in small towns have exactly the same values as those who live in larger cities and suburbs. American values are the same regardless of where you live. The difference is they are perhaps taken to heart in a more fundamental way in small towns than in places that boast large populations and cultural diversity. Patriotism seems more heartfelt and genuine in rural parts of the country, more a regular part of life than in urban or suburban America.
Perhaps because showing one’s patriotism has been equated with having an “unsophisticated” attitude — a lack of world weariness and cynicism that the smart set personifies — the elites accuse those of us in flyover country of possessing a dullard’s sense of how the world really works. In this context, patriotic feelings and gestures are worse than futile, they are dangerous. Outward manifestations of patriotism come perilously close to upsetting the cosmopolitan self-image held by Americans not vouchsafed the blessing of living in a more pastoral setting. Such rash displays of emotion where America is concerned are contrasted with the blasé, more refined attitudes of our betters, who appreciate the splendid opportunity to feel smugly superior to the rubes who show reverence to the flag rather than dream of burning it.
But the biggest difference between city and country has to be that in rural America, the word “community” holds real meaning, far beyond the political meaning of the term that becomes a poor substitute in big cities. Small-town folk may be wary of outsiders and seem a little taciturn to strangers. But they would give the shirt off their back to their neighbor if they needed it. Yes, they may be insular and uninterested in what is happening outside of their immediate circle of friends and family. World affairs may bore them. National affairs may be something that one pays attention to every four years.
But when it comes to “community,” rural America personify how Russell Kirk described the concept:
Although Americans have been attached strongly to privacy and private rights, they also have been a people conspicuous for a successful spirit of community. In a genuine community, the decisions most directly affecting the lives of citizens are made locally and voluntarily. Some of these functions are carried out by local political bodies, others by private associations: so long as they are kept local, and are marked by the general agreement of those affected, they constitute healthy community.
Faith — in God and each other — and an abiding sense of togetherness that manifests itself in the way this “voluntary community” leans on each other in good times and bad is what defines small-town America. No community organizers needed here. They do all their organizing through their local church, or volunteer fire department, or lodge, or other association to which they choose to belong.
So it should come as no surprise that so many Medal of Honor winners were born and raised in towns and villages where “community” was more than a word politicians trotted out every couple of years during election season. Of course, Memorial Day also honors those from all over America — from city, town, and village — who did not receive the highest honors. Each death in combat meant indescribable pain to loved ones back home. Each loss was keenly felt in big cities and tiny communities across America, where residents who gave that “last full measure of devotion” to keep us free are honored today.
It is a remarkable testament to these little towns that so many of them have erected memorials to the fallen. I have seen them in my travels through the Midwest. I have seen them in Michigan, Ohio, Iowa, Indiana, Minnesota, and all over Illinois. Many of them were created following the Civil War with solemn additions made after each succeeding conflict. Some are war-specific, a stone or statue honoring the dead from different wars. Others pay homage to all residents killed in combat since the town was born. Most list the dead from each war. Some lists are longer, some shorter. All the monuments are immaculately, even lovingly kept. Most are given a prominent place in the center of town in a park or a square, although some haunt old cemeteries.
Streator is no different in that respect. Here, a series of memorials to every conflict in American history takes up a large space in the town park located near the city center. The granite and marble sparkles from being carefully maintained. You can see your reflection in the bronze statues and forever silent cannon, so meticulously kept they are. Many times as I have driven by in the late afternoon, I see someone — a nameless veteran, perhaps — placing fresh flowers where appropriate or sweeping the stones that front the impressive Vietnam War Memorial. I can imagine this scene being repeated in thousands of towns and villages across America on a regular basis, as the devotion to maintaining a memorial to the local servicemen who have fallen is simply part of the regular rhythms that mark the passage of time in small-town America.
This Memorial Day in Streator was a special one. A six-foot tall obelisk dedicated to those Streator men who fell during the Civil War was unveiled in Veterans Plaza and now stands a silent sentinel to courage and devotion along with the other memorials to wars fought by the United States. Named on the obelisk are two brothers — Lyston and Orion Howe — who, despite their youth and small stature, contributed to the war effort as drummer boys:
Lyston may have been the youngest soldier in the Union army, according to the Streator Times:
When Lyston first enlisted with his father in the 15th Illinois Volunteer Infantry in 1861, he was only 10 years and 9 months old. In 1906, the federal pension office determined that made Lyston the youngest soldier.
Later during the war, all three served in the 55th Illinois Volunteer Infantry.
There were an estimated 100,000 of these drummer boys under the age of 15 in the two armies who played a vital role in regimental life as well as in combat. They beat the regiment to reveille, to meals, to drill, and to sleep. They beat for officer’s call as well as keeping cadence on the march.
On the battlefield, they stuck close by the commanding officer and beat out instructions to the troops. And when not drumming, the boys acted as stretcher bearers for the ambulances.
But in the case of Orion Howe, Lyston’s older brother, opportunity came at the battle of Vicksburg to demonstrate his courage under fire. His Medal of Honor citation (awarded in 1896) reads:
A drummer boy, 14 years of age, and severely wounded and exposed to a heavy fire from the enemy, he persistently remained upon the field of battle until he had reported to Gen. W. T. Sherman the necessity of supplying cartridges for the use of troops under command of Colonel Malmborg.
Orion took many months to heal from his wounds at Vicksburg but he eventually rejoined his regiment and stuck with them until the end of the war.
Abe Lincoln gave Orion an appointment to the Naval Academy for his bravery. He joined the Merchant Marine instead and then moved to Streator, where he opened a saddle shop. But the young man became something of a wanderer, moving back to Streator for a few years at a time but always leaving for new adventures somewhere else. His brother Lyston eventually settled in Streator, where he raised a family and lived to the ripe old age of 87.
There are thousand of towns in America that, while perhaps not boasting a Medal of Honor winner, can nonetheless take pride in the service of men like Orion Howe. And on this Memorial Day, as the high school or community bands blare out the old familiar patriotic favorites and young and old gather around monuments in city parks or green plazas to remember the sacrifices of the fallen, it might be appropriate to recall the values these men and women held close to their hearts — the values that sustained them in their hour of trial. Yes, we should honor the dead for their sacrifices. But honor them also for the all-American values that animated their patriotism and the deeply held beliefs we proudly share with them.